England were kicked out of their own World Cup party, like an unwelcome drunk, by Wales and Australia, and now Stuart Lancaster has paid the price with his job.
After those critical defeats to Wales and Australia in their pool, all the reasons to axe the Cumbrian were trotted out – muddled selection, his lack of international coaching experience, failing to even match Martin Johnson’s chaotic class of 2011.
It seems the RFU listened. But here are five reasons why letting Lancaster go might just be a huge error.
Faith in the foundations
What is often forgotten about Sir Clive Woodward’s England record are the first few years. He took over in 1997 and oversaw the tour from hell to Australia where his team lost all seven matches and were beaten 76-0 in one game. His side were later thrashed 44-21 in the 1999 World Cup by South Africa and finished second in every Five/Six Nations championship for five years leading up until 2003. But the RFU stuck with him. They could see progress was being made despite the occasional blip on an otherwise upwards trajectory. The rest – a Six Nations Grand Slam and World Cup win – is of course, history.
Lancaster’s record had parallels to those early years under Woodward. He oversaw a runners-up finish in every Six Nations for the last four seasons. Yet, he, like Woodward, had been inching closer to the elusive Grand Slam and title - England were six points short of winning the tournament this year after an incredible 55-35 victory over France.
New Zealand have also shown that continuity can be key. Graham Henry was on the brink of the sack after the 2007 World Cup after his side lost 20-18 to France in the quarter-finals - the All Blacks’ worst ever performance to date in the tournament.
Indeed “worst ever” is a phrase that would have been ringing in the ears of the RFU review panel. Yet, they will also know that Henry then led New Zealand to their 2011 triumph on home soil and paved the way for Steve Hansen – his assistant – to cement the All Blacks’ status as the greatest rugby team of all time.
Lancaster made mistakes, that’s not in doubt, but it cannot be said he was not making progress before the World Cup. He should have been judged on four years of work, not two high-profile defeats. Woodward and Henry both learnt from their errors, and the Cumbrian should have been given time to do the same.
Steffon Armitage (Toulon)
Image credit: AFP
Stars struck from squad
The reigning European player of the year and his predecessor are English. Yet neither Nick Abendanon nor Steffon Armitage went to the World Cup because of the RFU’s myopic policy of not picking overseas players. Both of these France-based talents would have added competition to the squad, especially Armitage. He is an outstanding open-side flanker who would have pushed Chris Robshaw – who had a mediocre tournament and is not a natural No 7 – for a starting spot.
Australia picked two superb opensides – David Pocock, arguably the player of the tournament – and Michael Hooper in their starting XV against England. And, speaking of the Wallabies, their coach Michael Cheika insisted that their own overseas policy was overturned a year ago so he could pick Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell – two world-class performers who made a huge difference to their side.
The RFU policy was in place before Lancaster took the job so he was effectively hamstrung by his employers and the Premiership who do not want the quality of their product to dwindle by players chasing higher wages overseas. Club cannot come before country though and the RFU must also know the structure that feeds the England team is broken. This is shown by the catalogue of injuries that England have had over the past year – they had a dozen out at the start of the Six Nations – which even Woodward says clearly stems from the top players being involved in too many games, while Jeremy Guscott has called for central contracts.
And let’s not forget about Dylan Hartley and Manu Tuilagi. The Northampton hooker was not selected after he was banned for headbutting Jamie George in a club game. He is the country’s premier hooker and the lineout and scrum struggled without him. Tuilagi – arguably England’s bet player when fit – assaulted two female police officers forcing England to remove him from their squad. The centre demonstrated his incredible ability in the record breaking 38-21 win over New Zealand at Twickenham in 2012. (And yes, that is the same All Blacks team that has only lost three times in between retaining the William Webb-Ellis trophy. It was their heaviest defeat of the three by far, so Lancaster must have been doing something right).
Young guns yet to fire
England's George Ford during training
Image credit: Reuters
Inexperience breeds inconsistency. England had the youngest average age at the World Cup (26.2 years) – and that’s with a squad including 37-year-old Nick Easter. New Zealand on the other hand had an average of 28.2 and double the number of caps per player (48 compared with 25 for England). Many of these included stars who had already won a World Cup and learnt to win ugly, like they did in the final against France in 2011.
Lancaster did not have that wealth of nous to call on. He oversaw a complete transition in England’s squad after the dwarf-tossing and ferry-hopping debacle of the last World Cup. Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Anthony Watson, George Ford, Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph are just a few names that have come through and have the potential to be world-class performers – some of them are already at that level. Yet, you cannot teach experience, these players must go through the hard defeats like they did against Wales and Australia and learn how to grind out victories even when they are not playing well.
The All Blacks did it against Argentina in the group stages. And now even they will have to learn all over again - their golden generation is now nearly complete. Of course they are well stocked for outstanding youngsters but players such as Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Ma'a Nonu are either at, or nearing, the end of their careers. Like England post-2003 and the great Australian cricket team of the late 90s/early 2000s, they will have to go through a transition after losing all their leaders in a short space of time. England are young enough that they could in theory start the next World Cup with the same team that started against Australia, minus Geoff Parling, who is 31.
There are some top coaches out there – Hansen, Cheika, Eddie Jones - who coached Japan to victory over South Africa - and Ireland’s Joe Schmidt would be excellent appointments by the RFU and it is hoped that one of these has been lined up. However, it is tough to say if there are other contenders who would definitely be a better coach than Lancaster to bring through the current crop of players.
Whoever comes in will not steer too far from the squads that have recently been selected. So, having built a team, Lancaster should have been allowed to see it reach its peak.
Close calls and poisonous seeds
That defeat in 1999 to South Africa was in fact England’s second loss of the tournament after a 16-30 mauling by New Zealand in the group stage. The only difference between that tournament and the recent edition from an England defeats perspective is the seeding system. Three of the top six teams in the world were in Pool A because of the ludicrous 2012 draw, when Wales were ranked ninth and fell out of the top tier of teams.
Three years later, with Wales back on song, it was always going to be close and England had no room for error. In both of their defeats there were key moments. They arguably should have kicked a late penalty against Wales to draw the game and progress from the group courtesy of having more bonus points. And against Australia, Owen Farrell was sin-binned with England seven points down after his side had just scored a try. Matches hinge on these minor details these days, just ask Scotland. It is quite right that Lancaster’s place came under scrutiny, but the players make the decisions and do the tackling on the field and it was their errors that led to the team's exit.
Jonny May of England celebrates with Sam Burgess and Ben Youngs after scoring the first try for his side
Image credit: Reuters
The decision to omit Luther Burrell was brave. Lancaster selected Burgess and promising Exeter centre Henry Slade ahead of him, with the pair having only a handful of caps between them. It was based on their performances in training, he insisted. And is that not refreshing? How many times are coaches criticised for picking players based on reputation, not form? The easy option was to pick Burrell.
But Lancaster backed his judgement and was honest – just like he was when he turned up to World Cup winner Mike Tindall’s house after the 2011 World Cup to tell him he wouldn’t play for England again as he was clearing out the old guard. Or when he dropped Hartley, even though he could feasibly have picked his outstanding hooker.
Lancaster’s integrity is without question. He does not shy away from making big decisions even if they might be unpopular. The RFU should have followed suit and kept him in the job.